Analysis: A Uniform Code For Uniforms Must Be Impartial

Analysis: A Uniform Code For Uniforms Must Be Impartial

In schools, uniforms are intended to ensure that students interact with each other as equals and are not conditioned, at a formative stage, to regard fellow students as socially inferior or superior

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Wednesday, January 31, 2024, 10:37 PM IST
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Representative Pic | File

The tasteless conduct of a BJP MLA at a government school in Jaipur, and subsequent comments from the Rajasthan Education minister regarding the wearing of hijab within school precincts, were certainly avoidable. While the minister was not wrong in proposing a uniform code for uniforms, he should have made it clear that it would be applied impartially as per Constitutional norms.

To briefly recap the controversy, BJP MLA Balmukund Acharya strongly objected to the wearing of hijab by some students during a Republic Day function in the school. He also pointed to the absence of an idol of the goddess of learning, Saraswati, on the school premises. When a section of schoolgirls objected by demonstrating at a police station nearby, Congress MLAs jumped into the fray. Thereafter, state Education minister Madan Dilawar declared that an idol of Saraswati and a dress code were mandatory at all government-run educational institutions. And now, the Rajasthan government is reportedly contemplating a ban on the hijab in schools. This is a bold step, as chief minister Bhajan Lal Sharma would be courting precisely the kind of controversy that was stoked in Karnataka in 2022.

In an election year, the ruling dispensation in Rajasthan might regard such a controversy as politically viable, in the same spirit as the proposed Uniform Civil Code in Uttarakhand. However, the issue is best seen from a social rather than a political perspective.

Uniforms in schools are desirable precisely because students come from different social backgrounds. The purpose of a uniform is three-fold. First, to establish the professional identity of the person in uniform; second, to put those wearing it on an equal footing and third, to evoke a team spirit. In schools, uniforms are intended to ensure that students interact with each other as equals and are not conditioned, at a formative stage, to regard fellow students as socially inferior or superior. A uniform narrows the scope for “othering” on the basis of class, caste or creed, and serves to limit positive or negative discrimination. Rich and poor, Rajput and Bairwa, Hindu and Muslim, all wear the same uniform.

It can be argued that students must be allowed scope for self-expression. In the US, public school students are allowed to make fashion choices in terms of garments, jewellery, accessories and even body art. But in India, where inequities are vast, uniformity is desirable. Students are expected to stand out on the basis of academic performance or skills in various fields, rather than their attire.

There’s no denying that multiculturalism has been carried to unnecessary and counterproductive lengths in government institutions, with the result that students feel they are justified in wearing markers of their faith or even their caste affiliation. This undermines the purpose of the uniform, which is to unite rather than divide the student body.

The Rajasthan government must also consider the judicial viewpoint. Does freedom of expression trump the principle of equality within school precincts? It may be recalled that the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on the question of a uniform dress code. When addressing Karnataka’s ban on the hijab in schools, one judge held that it was in tune with the Constitution. He emphasised that a uniform instilled a sense of oneness, promoted a school spirit and wiped out differences. He also pointed out that carrying faiths and beliefs to schools, intended to be secular spaces devoted to learning, was not desirable. His colleague held that no student could be denied entry into a school on the grounds that she did not conform to the dress code. But he did not address the question of whether or not the hijab was a necessary emblem of the Muslim faith.

Going by the fact that women in Iran are fighting for the right not to wear one, the argument that it is mandatory doesn’t wash. Besides, many Muslim-majority countries strongly discourage the hijab and have banned it in educational institutions and government offices. Indeed, the insistence on the hijab undermines the tremendous sacrifices made by Iranian feminists who are still being executed, beaten and tortured by the theocracy for refusing to wear it.

France has long since banned the hijab in public schools. In keeping with the republic’s founding principle of laïcité, or separation of religion and state, no visible symbols of any faith are permitted in public schools, be it the Catholic cross, the hijab or the Sikh turban. The restriction naturally does not apply to private schools. Burqas, however, are banned in all public spaces, for security reasons.

If Rajasthan intends to ban the hijab in government schools, the same rules should apply to all students, and no markers of any faith or community should be allowed. A uniform dress code must be just that — uniform. By the same logic, no idols of any religion should be permitted in a government school. Nor should namaz or prayers of any faith be recited.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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